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UPDATE! Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center: A Jet-Age Icon is Threatened

twa saarinen

“All the curves, all the spaces and elements right down to the shape of the signs, display boards, railings and check-in desks were to be of a matching nature. We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment, in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world.” – Eero Saarinen, 1959 (from Peter Gossel and Gabriele Leuthauser. Architecture in the Twentieth Century, p.250)

Since this past summer, The Municipal Art Society has been advocating for a better plan for Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center (1956-62), now Terminal A, a New York City landmark and icon of modern design. As part of the expansion of JFK Airport, the Port Authority proposes to construct a large new U-shaped terminal around the “airside” of the landmark. Hundreds of architects, design professionals, and enthusiasts of modern design have joined civic organizations in protesting these plans.

The Port Authority claims the building has outlived its effectiveness as an airline terminal, and plans to convert it to a non-aviation use such as a conference center. While the tubular jetways will be retained, the innovative satellite gate structures known as the flight wings are to be demolished. Originally, the Port had lined up two tenants for the new terminal – United Airlines and Jet Blue. However, since the events of September 11, the airlines have put their commitments to help pay for and then occupy the new building on hold. In recent meetings with the Society and other interested parties, the Port Authority has indicated its intention to proceed with the current proposal while issues of tenancy for both the new terminal and the Saarinen building are addressed.

Since the Society’s advocacy efforts began, the Port Authority has made significant concessions that will improve the quality of maintenance and care that the building will receive while a new tenant for the building is sought. However, its plan for wrapping a new terminal around the original has not changed and several of the Society’s key objections remain unaddressed:

  • While the Port Authority has altered its plans to provide on-grade access to the building from the new train-to-the-plane, it makes no assurances that the Terminal’s eventual re-use will maximize public access and reflect the spirit of its original purpose as an airport terminal. The Society continues to call for improved access to the Terminal’s primary entrance, as well as a use that makes sense both for the building as it was originally designed and for the public.
  • The Port continues to maintain that a flight-related use for the Terminal that utilizes the building in its entirety, i.e. including the flight wings, cannot be found. The Society is in the process of creating alternative solutions to show that the building can indeed still serve as a portal for travelers to pass through en route to an airplane. Our schemes preserve the original flight wing, which is part of the NYC landmark site (the other flight wing is not).

The Port’s plans still call for a new huge structure surrounding and isolating Saarinen’s building. The Society’s alternative schemes maintain the views of tarmac and airplane activity for visitors to the Terminal’s central space, preserving one of the key features of Saarinen’s original design.

Where do things stand now, and what happens next?

In late October, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration requested that the Port Authority provide more detailed information on alternatives to the existing plan. The FAA is now awaiting this information, and has invited the Society to include its own alternatives as part of the review process, which we are preparing.

What you can do to help

The Society is hopeful that the Federal Aviation Administration and the Port Authority will find that viable alternatives to the Port’s current plan do exist, and that a more appropriate new solution can be found that preserves all of the key features of Saarinen’s modern masterpiece.